Book Review: Lincoln And Douglas: The Debates That Defined America

Lincoln And Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, by Allen C. Guelzo

Although this is a very excellent book written by a notable Lincoln Prize-winning author, there are at least a couple of issues with the title. For one, the author states that one of the deliberate aims of this book (and a successful one) is to expand the focus beyond the debates to the comparative campaign histories of both Lincoln and Douglas in 1858, placed in a series of larger contexts, of course, relating to the history of both men and the importance of both men in contemporary political philosophy. For another, in a strict sense, as the author reminds the reader several times, Lincoln and Douglas did not strictly engage in debates, but in serial speeches in which the speakers could choose to answer the comments of the other speaker or not. Neither were the debates scored on points, although the author does his best to use a chart form to categorize the claims and counterclaims and rebuttals in all seven of the debates, and does his own admittedly personal scoring of the debates to give Lincoln a slight 3-2-2 edge among the seven debates, but coming out considerably stronger in the end as a result of the widespread expectation that Douglas would be a far stronger debater given his much higher political profile. This is a worthy and technical history, combining rhetorical analysis with a deft handling of the tactical and strategic elements of the campaign on both Lincoln’s and Douglas’ side, which ought to satisfy any political junkie who happens to be interested in the slavery issue and its relevance to the start of the Civil War, and also the relevance of Lincoln and Douglas to our contemporary societal and civilization-wide malaise.

In terms of its organization, the book is straightforward and chronological. The book introduces its subject (and finishes the book) by bracketing the main story in the context of how Lincoln and Douglas and their debates have been viewed by different generations, most notably in the 1960 presidential debates between Nixon and Kennedy, and noting that despite the fact that they have been mined for worthwhile political philosophy by able men such as Professor Jaffa [1], the Illinois Senate campaign of 1858 has rarely been examined as a whole. The author then spends over 300 pages doing just this, with vivid detail about dirty tricks, evenhanded commentary on the use of pretty girls to send a political message, the alcoholism of Douglas, Lincoln’s sordid but sadly necessary task of pandering to the prejudices of the decisive Whig belt in the center of the state, and the bungling errors of Buchanan to attempt to defeat Douglas that ended up leaving Douglas shaken but still in the Senate after the long campaign. The author also comments on how two little-recognized elements dramatically shaped the campaign and its aftermath, first, how Douglas used a letter from Kentucky Whig Crittenden (most famous in history as the author of the doomed Crittenden Compromise after the 1860 Presidential Election) endorsing him over Lincoln to win critical support among the Whigs of Central Illinois, and the second, how little support Lincoln got from some important Republicans and former Whigs within Illinois. This book presents the debates not in isolation, but in part of a larger context, a larger context both in terms of the presidential aspirations of both Lincoln and Douglas, and how the debates themselves became best remembered because of their value as good print material for a voracious reading audience, and also how Lincoln and Douglas addressed matters at the core of the Western republican/democratic political order.

It is these larger questions that are of the most relevance to contemporary readers. To praise Lincoln accurately means to believe that the survival of our Republic, and others, depends on a people being in possession of republican virtue, understanding that no one has a right to do what is wrong, no matter what the majority of the people or the courts. In this case, votes are a means to an end, namely the end of the good life, a life as free of moral and political corruption as possible. For those who praise Douglas, though, there is no higher thought beyond individual rights, no moral compass, no core principles on which our society depends, no moral chest to resist the pull of corruption and decadence. Often, Lincoln’s moral stature is admired but not emulated by the political culture of our time, for it is easier to praise virtue than to practice it by far. Douglas, for all of his obvious moral trimming and inconsistency, is a man clearly more of our times, with his boozing and womanizing and his focus only on the present campaign without a larger political philosophy to guide him. Lincoln sits carved in marble, but Douglas makes on us fewer demands, and so we practice politics as he does, focused on the present, rather than thinking about what sort of society it is that we want to encourage and build up. This book performs a notable and worthwhile task in putting the debates in their proper place and in tying them to a greater context, in such a way as to satisfy both the political junkie and the moral philosopher among its reading audience.

[1] See, for example:

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